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Obituary: Claude Levi-Strauss

Claude Levi-Strauss in 2005
Levi-Strauss is regarded as a giant of 20th Century social sciences

Claude Levi-Strauss, who died a few weeks short of his 101st birthday, was widely regarded as a founder of modern anthropology and one of France's foremost thinkers.

He introduced structuralism to anthropology, an approach that seeks to identify common patterns of behaviour and thought in all human societies.

Levi-Strauss was born in 1908 in Brussels, Belgium, to French parents of Jewish origin. He grew up in Paris and studied at the Sorbonne.

In the mid-1930s he went to Sao Paulo, Brazil, where he taught sociology before turning to anthropology. He conducted research in the Mato Grosso and Amazon regions.

Later critics pointed out that Levi-Strauss had spent limited time with the tribes he studied and had limited knowledge of their language.

However his fieldwork strengthened his academic credentials and would later form the substance of the book that made his name, Tristes Tropiques.

Free French link

In 1939 he returned to France to take part in the war effort, and spent a few months behind the Maginot Line.

I hate travels and explorers
Tristes Tropiques

After capitulation in 1940, Levi-Strauss worked as a teacher but was dismissed under racial laws introduced by the collaborationist Vichy regime, and left for the US.

While teaching in New York City, he befriended and was influenced by the famous anthropologist Franz Boas.

In 1942, he joined the Free French movement and worked for the US Office of War Information.

Levi-Strauss returned to France in 1948 to complete his doctorate.

A year later he published his thesis as a book, The Elementary Structures of Kinship, which cemented his reputation among scholars.

In 1955 he published Tristes Tropiques, an account of his time as an expatriate doubling as a philosophical meditation.

The book - which starts with the arresting sentence: "I hate travels and explorers" - was immediately hailed as a masterpiece and turned the author into one of France's best-known intellectuals.

Fun and games

He went on to publish hugely influential books, including Structural Anthropology (1958), the Savage Mind (1962), and The Raw and the Cooked (1964).

Not a year goes by without my receiving an order for jeans

The latter led to a series of works entitled Mythologies, in which Levi-Strauss found common threads underlying seemingly arbitrary myths across cultures.

By then Levi-Strauss was a worldwide celebrity and taught in the prestigious College de France.

He would later become a member of the Academie Francaise, the ultimate accolade for a French intellectual.

Although his ideas, like those of other structuralist thinkers, influenced the student rebels of 1968, he ultimately took a dim view of the rioters.

"After an initial reaction of curiosity, once I had grown weary of the fun and games, I was repulsed by May 68," he wrote.

Although not best-known for his sense of humour, Levi-Strauss did remark on the US garment company of the same name.

"That unfortunate homonymy has never ceased to haunt me - like a ghost" he once wrote. "Not a year goes by without my receiving an order for jeans - usually from Africa."

Paying tribute to Levi-Strauss, French President Nicolas Sarkozy described him as a "very great scholar, always open to the world, who created modern anthropology".



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